At Work

How Vocation Inspired Martin Luther to Launch the Reformation

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Did you know Martin Luther was a media pioneer? In her New York Times article, “Long Before Twitter, Martin Luther Was a Media Pioneer,” Tanya Mohn writes,

Americans may know the basics of how Martin Luther was said to have nailed his 95 theses to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany, in 1517, condemning the Roman Catholic Church’s sale of indulgences, but they probably don’t realize how Luther strategically used the media of his time: books, paintings, prints and music.

Mohn then details three exhibitions taking place in Manhattan, Atlanta, and Minneapolis to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Luther’s famous stand. She describes Luther’s actions in glowing terms:

This monk in a town at the edge of Germany took on the Holy Roman emperor and the pope — then the most powerful men in Europe — 500 years ago, and won.

What would inspire someone to take on someone so powerful? In a word, vocation. In his book A Place to Stand: The Word of God in the Life of Martin Luther, Gene Veith writes,

Luther did not intend to start the Protestant Reformation. He did not intend to start a new church or break up the old one. He certainly did not intend to dismantle the Middle Ages and to begin the modern world. He believed God was working through him, though a pathetically flawed earthen vessel, to achieve His purposes. That is, Luther considered that he was carrying out a calling, living out his divinely appointed vocation.

As a result, Veith, explains, “Luther had a strong sense of calling. He knew God was at work through his work. This gave Luther an intense sense of purpose as well as a sense of perspective.” A sense of purpose can certainly inspire someone to take on the Holy Roman emperor and the pope. It inspired others, too. As I wrote in a post about discovering the Reformation view of work:

It was initially through Martin Luther’s efforts that the 16th century Reformers began to recover the biblical doctrine of work. They began to recognize that all of life, including daily work, can be understood as a calling from God.

One reason Luther’s efforts were so inspiring was because he was, as Veith calls him, “a man of the people.” Veith tells how Luther once wrote a book on prayer for his barber, dedicating it to “Master Peter.” Veith writes,

One reason Luther honored his barber and people like him was the he understood the doctrine of vocation. All callings, no matter how humble in the world’s eyes, are the gifts of God to his people. All are avenues of service to one’s neighbor and ways of glorifying God through one’s work. Luther knew…we have a calling not only in the work that God has given us to do – whether launching a Reformation or cutting hair, all vocations being equal before God – but also in our citizenship and in our families.

In an amazing statement for the time, Luther wrote in The Babylonian Captivity of the Church:

Therefore I advise no one to enter any religious order or priesthood…unless he is forearmed with this knowledge and understands that the works of monks and priests, however holy and arduous they may be, do not differ one whit in the sight of God from the works of the rustic laborer in the field or the woman going about her household tasks, but that all works are measured before God by faith alone.

Luther’s belief in the doctrine of vocation would inspire believers from John Calvin to John Winthrop and the puritans to believers today who continue to labor in everyday professions for the glory of God. “The doctrine of vocation was one of Luther’s most profound theological insights,” Veith declares. Indeed, the effects of Luther’s efforts to promote this doctrine can still be felt today, and make his work worth celebrating, even 500 years later.

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Further readings on At Work

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